Jason Barnwell started thinking about launching a new career after his National Guard deployment to southern Iraq. “I’ve been to the Garden of Eden, and I’ve seen what man has done to it...” began his application essay for the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability’s Executive Master of Natural Resources program.

I’ve been to the Garden of Eden, and I’ve seen what man has done to it...

Between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in what some believe was the biblical Garden of Eden, a vast marshland harbored rich farmland as well as hundreds of species of birds and fish. But the marshes were drained long before Barnwell arrived, devastating the ecosystem.

“Now it is a barren desert with swirling dust storms, and the only wildlife seems to be snakes and camel spiders,” Barnwell said.

When Barnwell returned from Iraq four years ago, he visited the rugged coastline of Maine’s Penobscot Bay and spotted three bald eagles while walking along the shore.

“As a soldier, you see the eagle’s image everywhere, and I came to take the sighting as a sign,” Barnwell said. “The first eagle that landed in the trees symbolized my career in the defense industry, the second my service in Iraq. I interpreted the third eagle as my sign to begin a new period of service. I can be a defender of these fragile areas just as I once defended our country’s values as a soldier.”

Barnwell is one of four students with a recent military background in the second student cohort of the Executive Master of Natural Resources program, which began in January. They have enrolled in the program to gain the necessary skills and credentials for a midlife career change after serving in the military; three of them are using GI Bill benefits.

The accelerated 18-month graduate degree program is aimed at working professionals. Students develop strategies for real-world challenges, both individually and in teams. The curriculum emphasizes the development of advanced leadership, management, and administrative skills for achieving local, regional, and global sustainability goals.

Barnwell’s fellow veterans in the 22-member cohort include Darin Liston and James “Jay” Pinsky, self-proclaimed outdoor guys who want to align their second-life careers with their pursuits and passions. Aaron Weddle, still active in National Guard, is returning to college after 15 years of deployments and military jobs, none of which made use of his bachelor’s degree in wildlife biology.

“It is a privilege to have these four students participating in the Executive Master of Natural Resources program,” said David Robertson, the center’s associate director. “Each of them brings significant leadership experience from their military careers to the classroom, where we engage in intensive peer-to-peer learning via interdisciplinary teamwork.”

“I’ve been very impressed with their ability to work closely in project teams with students from other types of institutions, including business and civil society organizations,” Roberston continued. “I’m confident that the program is helping these students achieve their career change and advancement goals.”

Liston, a 1991 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, brings 21 years of Navy leadership experience, including a stint as an arms control advisor in the Office of EuroAtlantic Security Affairs at the U.S. State Department. After many years of leadership and project management, he feels his ability to determine objectives, make assignments, and meet project deadlines will be key to his future career success, and the executive master’s program is helping to refine those skills.

Barnwell, who has a solid career as an electrical engineer managing multi-million-dollar development projects, joined the U.S. Army National Guard after 9/11. Pinsky was an award-winning photojournalist for the U.S. Navy after spending the early part of his 20-year career as a machinist’s mate for nuclear-powered submarines. Weddle is handling contracting for the National Guard after recently commanding an aviation company in Afghanistan.

Even these seasoned military professionals have not been immune to the unemployment problems plaguing U.S. veterans returning from service in Afghanistan and Iraq, especially young service members with little professional experience.

“I was unemployed for a year after my last deployment,” Weddle says. “Civilian employers don’t translate military leadership into leadership in other fields. They don’t seem to understand the skills I bring to the job. I applied for about 70 jobs with the federal government, but they wanted a master’s degree and recent related experience.”

Although Liston was unemployed for only eight days after his official retirement from the Navy on June 30, 2012, his previously launched full-time job search lasted almost 20 weeks before he landed a senior analyst position at Marstel-Day, an environmental consulting firm, where he helps military bases deal sustainably with encroachment issues. He learned about MarstelDay from a company employee in his student cohort.

“I feel fortunate to have this job in the field I desire,” Liston said. “Virginia Tech’s Executive Master of Natural Resources program is helping me on the job.”

According to November 2011 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 11.7 percent of U.S. veterans were unemployed, compared with 9.1 percent for the overall population at that time. By June 2012, the youngest vets returning from Afghanistan and Iraq were experiencing 29 percent unemployment.

“I had a solid career in electrical engineering before I joined the Guard, so I didn’t have trouble finding employment again,” Barnwell said. “But now I’m seeking a position in the nonprofit world. It’s a big change, and I’m ready to do it.”

“It’s a spiritual calling,” he added. “I want to be a part of ensuring the beautiful areas of our country and the diverse wildlife that inhabit them are here for generations to come. By employing my engineering background and the knowledge I’m gaining in the Virginia Tech program, I can be a defender of these fragile areas.”

Pinsky, while enjoying the global travel perks of doing public relations work for FLIR Systems, a thermal imaging firm, says he wants a job that allows him to make a difference in the field of natural resources.

“I agree with what Steve Jobs said in his Stanford commencement speech, that you should do what you love, not necessarily what brings you financial success,” Pinsky said. “And I love the outdoors and the animals I hunt. The more I watch the animals and learn about them, the more I care about them and want them to endure. I want to organize others to take better care of wildlife and the environment.”

They all agree with what Liston says of the executive master’s program fulfilling his objectives to launch a career change: “We’re getting a broad overview of sustainability and the leadership background to organize programs in this field and run them thoughtfully.”

Finding fellow veterans in their class was a pleasant surprise for all four.

“Vets have some shared experiences and a common language,” said Weddle. “Everyone does — engineers have their language, environmental planners have theirs. Vets are a diverse group, but we work and communicate in a lot of the same ways.”

“It’s a bit overwhelming to come out of the military and realize how different you are from civilians in the way you think and do things,” said Pinsky. “I’m a direct person, more confrontational than most — not that I’m aggressive or get into fights, I just deal directly. Most in the military deal that way. But to others, it can be intimidating. It’s good to have guys around who understand you.”

“I really respect these students’ commitment to sustainability,” said Bruce Hull, professor and center Senior Fellow. “By choosing to study for new careers in sustainability, they further evidence their commitments to serving society. They bring valuable experiences to our program, and they really enjoy working with the diversity of professions and organizations present in our classrooms.”